Polish lawmakers pass bill seen as limiting media freedom

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People demonstrate in defense of media freedom in Warsaw, Poland, on Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2021. Poles demonstrated nationwide Tuesday against a bill widely viewed as a effort by the country’s nationalist ruling party to silence an independent, U.S.-owned television broadcaster that is critical of the government.(AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Poland’s parliament voted Wednesday in favor of a bill that would force Discovery Inc., the U.S. owner of Poland’s largest private television network, to sell its Polish holdings and is widely viewed as an attack on media independence in Poland.

The draft legislation would prevent non-European owners from having controlling stakes in Polish media companies. In practice, it only affects TVN, which includes TVN24, an all-news station that is critical of the nationalist right-wing government and has exposed wrongdoing by Polish authorities.

Lawmakers voted 228-216 to pass the legislation, with 10 abstentions.

The bill must still go to the Senate, where the opposition has a slim majority. The upper house can suggest changes and delay the bill’s passage, but the lower house can ultimately pass it as it wishes. It would then go to President Andrzej Duda, an ally of the right-wing government.

Discovery said it was “extremely concerned” and appealed to the Senate and Duda to oppose the project. “Poland’s future as a democratic country in the international arena and its credibility in the eyes of investors depend on this,” it said.

The vote in parliament followed two days of political upheaval that saw the prime minister on Tuesday fire a deputy prime minister who opposed the media bill.

The ruling party appeared earlier Wednesday not to have the votes, but found them after all.

There was also tension on the street after the vote, with protesters gathering in front of parliament. Some clashed with police and were detained.

The media bill is viewed as a crucial test for the survival of independent news outlets in the former communist nation, coming six years into the rule of a populist government that has chipped away at media and judicial independence.

The ruling party has long sought to nationalize media in foreign hands, arguing it is necessary for national security. Ejecting TVN’s American owner from Poland’s media market would be a huge victory for the government, coming after the state oil company last year bought a large private media group.

Its political opponents, however, believe that TVN’s independence is tantamount to saving media freedom and see the survival of Poland’s democracy as being on the line.

TVN’s all-news station TVN24 is a key source of news for many Poles but it is also a thorn in the government’s side. It is often critical and exposes wrongdoing by officials. The government’s supporters consider it biased and unfairly critical.

Government critics have long feared that Poland was following a path set by Hungary, where Prime Minister Viktor Orban has gained near-total control over the media as private outlets have either folded or come under the control of the leader’s allies.

TVN represents the largest ever U.S. investment in Poland. The company was bought for $2 billion by another U.S. company, Scripps Networks Interactive, which was later acquired by Discovery.

The draft bill was adding to strain between Poland and the United States.

On Wednesday, the parliament also passed another bill opposed by the U.S. and Israel — a law that would prevent former Polish property owners, among them Holocaust survivors and their heirs, from regaining property expropriated by the country’s communist regime.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement Wednesday that the United States was “deeply troubled” by the legislation targeting TVM.

“Poland has worked for decades to foster a vibrant and free media,” Blinken said. “This draft legislation would significantly weaken the media environment the Polish people have worked so long to build.”

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AP Diplomatic Writer Matthew Lee contributed to this report.

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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